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Memories Still Raw, Monson Rebuilds 1 Year After Tornado

MONSON, Mass. — One year ago, a series of tornadoes tore through western and central Massachusetts. The most severe one carved a 39-mile path of destruction from Westfield through Springfield, all the way to the town of Charlton outside Worcester.

One of the hardest-hit communities was the small western Massachusetts town of Monson, where we met Tina Partlow the day after the storm. She had huddled in her basement with two of her teenaged sons and one of their friends, as a large tree limb broke through the cellar window and the twister ripped apart their home overhead.

“At one point one of my kids said to me, ‘Mommy, are we gonna die?’ And I said, ‘No boys, this is not our day to die.’”
– Tina Partlow, tornado survivor

“It was horrible. It just sounded like a jet engine screaming and rolling thunder all at the same time,” Partlow said at the scene.

One year later, the emotions stemming from that day and its aftermath still bubble to the surface, heavy and raw.

“I kept praying. I’m like, ‘Please let the bottom floor stay on. Please. Because these are my babies,’ ” Partlow recalled. “And at one point one of my kids said to me, ‘Mommy, are we gonna die?’ And I said, ‘No boys, this is not our day to die.’ You can’t sit there and have your child say something like that to you and not have a real answer for them. Because if you’re wrong, that’s the last thing that ever goes through their mind.”

Thankfully, Partlow was right. She and her kids, and her husband — who was driving home at the time — escaped the tornado physically unharmed. Their home, though, like many others on Bethany Road in Monson, was shattered — partially collapsed.

Today, the sounds of saws and bulldozers are the norm on Bethany Road — just off Monson’s downtown — which used to be lined with century-old Colonials. It’s now a mixed bag of old homes that survived and have been repaired, others under construction and new replacement homes already completed — three brand new ones next to Partlow’s, plus her new house.

“In a lot of ways, this house really is very similar to the old one, when the old one was in one piece,” Partlow said.

She and her husband are among the lucky ones in terms of rebuilding. Partlow said the insurance process was seamless and the contractor fabulous, quickly designing and building their home to look, outside and inside, like a replica of their 1881 Colonial. The builders finished the house in November, less than six months after the tornado.

Tina Partlow's new home on Bethany Road in Monson (Bob Oakes/WBUR)

I asked Partlow what isn’t in the house that she wishes was there.

“I know this is going to sound silly, but every house, every old house especially, has its smells and its worn spots, you know, that become charming and endearing, and I miss that,” she said. “The wide beam floors, you’re never going to find that. And those are part of what makes a house a home. We’ll make that eventually.”

Partlow says she feels horrible people in the neighborhood are still struggling to rebuild, like Anna Ling, who continues to rent an apartment with her husband and three kids. Their new home is still a shell, with studs on the inside and plywood on the outer walls.

When we stopped by Ling’s home, builders were welding copper pipes and cutting holes in the floors for duct work. We found Anna and her husband at work, at the Chinese restaurant they own on Monson’s Main Street.

“I got a lot of trouble in my house there,” Anna said. Asked what kind of trouble, she responded, “Right now if I tell you, maybe got a big trouble again (sic). Some people scare me, you know? Kind of just, yeah, take advantage of me.”

Despite complications with insurance and problems with their original builder, who is no longer on the job, Ling said, she and her husband had no doubt they wanted to rebuild right where they had bought their original house just seven months before the tornado hit.

Tina Partlow with one of the few pieces of furniture she salvaged from her old home -- a piece that belonged to her grandmother. (Bob Oakes/WBUR)

Tina Partlow with one of the few pieces of furniture she salvaged from her old home -- a piece that belonged to her grandmother. (Bob Oakes/WBUR)

Despite the struggles, you can see that all over Monson, the town is recovering.

“It’s very visible to the community to see that rebuilding, and it is encouraging and a credit to those people,” said Monson Town Administrator Gretchen Neggers.

About one-third of the 50 or so families whose houses were destroyed have moved into their newly built homes since the tornado, according to Neggers, most of them on Bethany Road and on Heritage Lane behind it, where there are 10 new houses.

I ask her about the most visible lingering scar: the trees wiped out along the tornado’s wide path for over a mile, from the hill bordering downtown to the west, to the hill going out of town to the east.

“Some of those changes visually, that’s going to take decades,” Neggers said. “But it’s something that gradually, it will be incorporated into your expectation of what you’re going to see when you look out the window.”

Partlow is still trying to adapt to that view and the way that weather — thunderstorms and high winds — continue, a year later, to give her the willies.

“Sometimes when I feel those winds, I kind of get a little freaked out,” Partlow said. “And I have to remind myself, we don’t have any trees to kind of shelter the house from the winds.”

She said she isn’t haunted by the memories of that horrible day one year ago, but she admitted she will never fully get over the shock. She had one jarring, vivid flashback last fall. One of her sons has been in counseling for post-traumatic stress-type issues, and, she said, another one needs to start therapy now for nightmares.

“And I think that’s normal. It’s very normal,” Partlow said. “I don’t think anybody could go through what half these towns went through without having some type of residual effects from this tornado.”

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